The Limits of Populism: Is Peru about to Have its Sixth President in Six Years?

Disclaimer:This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

Pedro Castillo, a populist left-wing rural teacher who surprised the Peruvian establishment during the first electoral round, took office in July 2021 amid a polarised election in which he defeated Keiko Fujimori, a right-wing candidate. While half of the country feared that the government would establish an authoritarian communist regime and threaten Peruvian macroeconomic policy, the other half saw an opportunity to implement long-promised reforms to reduce inequality. However, neither of these scenarios have happened to this date, and what remains is an unpopular government involved in corruption scandals whose continuity remains uncertain. How did a populist leader diminish his credibility in barely seven months? 

Populism 

In their book about populism, Cristobal Rovira and Cas Mudde define ‘populism’ as a thin ideology that divides society into antagonistic groups: the elite and the people. Castillo appealed to this discourse during the electoral campaign, criticising the limeño establishment. He presented himself as a legitimate representative of the excluded ones, an honest teacher who understood the demands of his rural and poor “brothers and sisters”.

Moreover, in his first speech, which coincided with Peruvian bicentennial independence, he brought back old leftist ideas on nation-building. As Alberto Vergara has recently argued, Castillo referred to a simplistic view praising the Inca empire as a united civilisation and condemning everything that came after. By this approach, the Spanish colonisation, and even Peruvian independence, deepened the oppression of the Andean population, which – in his view – could only be absolved through a leadership like his. These ideas were followed with symbolic acts: The President announced he would turn the Presidential Palace into a public museum –  a decision rapidly dismissed – and made his Prime Minister sworn in Pampa de la Quinua, an independence battlefield located far away from the country’s capital.

However, words and symbolism have rapidly faded away despite the government’s initiatives. A recent poll showed that Castillo’s disapproval increased from 46% in August to 63% in February, with 48% asking for new presidential and parliamentary elections. The populist appeal has proved scanty for three reasons.

Firstly, the government lacks solid political and social ties. Castillo ran the election as a guest of Peru Libre, a small regional radical left-wing party whose primary interest was to keep their legal inscription for the next election. Winning the election was not considered a possibility, as, by February 2021, the candidate had less than 1% in the electoral polls. He moderated his discourse during the second round, claiming he was more a pragmatic leader than a leftist ideologist. He also promised that the party wouldn’t interfere in government decisions, a plausible scenario in a system in which party organisations tend to function as ephemeral coalitions of free agents pursuing power rather than as representative organisations. 

The confrontation continued in office. Vladimir Cerron, Peru Libre’s founder, has publicly accused Castillo’s government of treason several times, threatening to withdraw parliamentary support. In exchange, Castillo has made questionable concessions to maintain its coalition, losing the support of other centre-left and technical groups that backed him during the second round. 

Additionally, he lacks clear constituencies. During his campaign, he received the support of teachers’ federations, ronderos and other rural groups who proved crucial for winning the election. However, this support has weakened amid scandals and government decisions. Moreover, in a country characterised by having a weak, fragmented civil society, long-term alliances are hard to sustain. In contrast to other former union leaders and Latin American leftist presidents like Evo Morales in Bolivia or Lula da Silva in Brazil, Castillo faces challenges in maintaining his support.   

Secondly, he displays poor government skills. Instead of choosing cooperation, Castillo’s first move was to confront the opposition, which holds the majority in Congress. He appointed Guido Bellido, a radical leftist member of Peru Libre, as his Prime Minister, among other unqualified ministers facing allegations. Bellido’s successor, Mirtha Vasquez, a human rights activist with democratic credentials, was interpreted as an attempt to reach a consensus. However, she resigned after four months, expressing her concern about irregularities and corruption scandals that involved top officials and the President’s inner circle. Ex-cabinet members have also questioned the influence of his advisors and pointed out the difficulties in coordinating with the President.

Most appointed ministers do not have the required experience in the field.  For example, amid a national oil spill crisis, the country had a Minister of Environment whose only professional experience was being a school geography teacher. Four cabinets and nearly 50 ministers have been sworn into office in seven months. Confronted over his poor governance decisions, the President said he is still learning from his mistakes.

However, the problem is far beyond inexperience and indecision: it is also a matter of mediocrity and corruption. The Executive is dismantling reforms in higher education and public transport. Other policies, such as the vaccination campaign, are also on hold. Even electoral promises, like reforms in agriculture or taxation, remained stalled. Instead of achievements, the government has confronted an extensive list of allegations that involve the president, ministers and his inner circle. 

Castillo is currently under investigation for collusion and influence-peddling after the media discovered he was holding unofficial meetings outside the Government Palace with business people, who were later granted public biddings. His former chief of staff is currently being investigated due to allegations that he has been favouring the promotion of military officials, following Castillo’s indications. This, as well as other scandals, has led to the resignation of many experienced officials, including Vice ministers, Executive and General Directors who denounced pressures from their principals to hire unqualified professionals for party reasons, approve unjustified policy changes and, overall, a lack of long-term view which is affecting institutions

Instead of accepting criticism, the President has denied the allegations He has denounced a coup d’état by the right-wing opposition, including politicians, businessmen and a monopolist press, as being harmful to democracy. While it is true that some parts of the establishment have promoted his impeachment since the beginning, the severe allegations he is facing and the anti-democratic manoeuvres the government has deployed must be a reason to question his populist discourse. 

The last element is his leadership. Castillo is not a natural leader; he avoids interviews with the media, is not a trained speaker and lacks charisma. According to public opinion, he appears as someone inconsistent and incapable of making decisions. Despite his populist discourse, he cannot mobilise people as other populist leaders like Morales, Chavez or Trump. Therefore, while a populist discourse can be helpful to win an election, it demonstrates that governing requires more than words.   

As seen, Castillo’s populist discourse seems to have reached its limit. But besides words, government actions are affecting the Peruvian democratic state. As Rovira and Mudde mention, populism can affect democracy by excluding minorities and attacking institutions concerned with the defence of individual rights. Castillo is doing so by constantly invoking the idea of the “people”, criticising the media or judiciary institutions currently investigating the government. These practices, unfortunately, are also shared across the political spectrum. However, rather than simply blaming the elite for its disapproval, the government should start wondering about its causes.

What to expect next? 

Peru has faced a political crisis since 2016. As a result, the country has had five presidents in six years. Impeachment is now part of daily politics. Taking into account the current situation, Castillo’s impeachment seems unavoidable, which opens two scenarios: either the current Vice President takes power, or Congress calls for a new general election. 

Both solutions may be reasonable in the short term, but further analysis is required to understand the causes of the ongoing crisis. In the current situation, calling for new elections might not improve the quality of representation. Peru is labelled a case of “democracy without parties”. Rather than representative organisations, what prevails are electoral vehicles led by ambitious leaders who usually receive illegal financing to run their campaigns in exchange for favours. This situation helps to explain how easily they are involved in corruption scandals. Therefore, we should also think about long-term solutions to solve the crisis.

Firstly, major institutional reform is required to strengthen political parties and regulate political funding. However, some previous efforts in this field were blocked by politicians in power. Secondly, recovering the essence of representation and democracy is necessary. In the end, without committed democratic politicians, institutional reforms may remain on paper, and the political crisis may repeat again. 

By Maria Claudia Augosto,

Peruvian political scientist. Msc Public Policy student at UCL.